The great ideological transformation roughly from 1850 to 1950, wherein the kind of people — defined by their education status, their bearing and culture, their general attitudes — who ensconce themselves at the pinnacle of intellectual and social stewardship switched political philosophies from individualism to collectivism, has been the subject of much dispute, especially among individualists. The general trend was tragic. But the terminological problems involved in the transformation were more maddening than anything else, at least to some.

250px-liberty_oldperiodicalAs far as individualists were concerned, the word “liberal” was stolen from them. By 1884, Herbert Spencer could plausibly make the claim that “Most of those who now pass as Liberals, are Tories of a new type.”* By the end of the century, when economist Joseph Hiam Levy speculated on the social consequences of applying classical liberal doctrine, he gave his talk before the National Liberal Club, but, when published, titled it The Outcome of Individualism, and nowhere within it used the word “liberal.” As I noted in a recent ebook reprint of that book,† by the end of the century, “Big government, unlimited government, even dictatorial government” had become “fashionable, even among people who thought of themselves as liberal. . . . So it was not clear anymore what liberal meant: it had two branches — one individualist and one collectivist.

This left the partisans of liberty as a limit to government in a pickle. What could they call themselves? The term liberal didn’t work anymore. It put them in company with all their old enemies: protectionists, mercantilists, pork-barrel enthusiasts, and even socialists.

The British writers following in Spencer’s tradition offered one solution: they called themselves individualists. . . .

But, as I went on to write, it was not a wholly satisfactory substitution. I explained some of the problems with that term in the rest of the preface to that unfortunately neglected book.

Readers today know what word finally replaced liberal in common speech and in politics: libertarian. But it, too, has had a rocky reception. Jeffrey Tucker, in a new essay‡, concisely states the problems, as popularly understood:

It’s long. It’s awkward. It always needs explaining. In America, it’s a word for both a party and an ideology. And the wars over what it actually means never end.

For my part, I have never been bothered by the “it’s long” criticism. Sure, it is long, but so are many other words in common use. Besides, it is in one way much better than “liberal” in that it does not have a primary (indeed ancient) meaning in ethics, a meaning mostly orthogonal to individualist liberalism. (“Liberal,” in personal ethics, means “open and generous”; “liberality” is a major virtue, “the quality of not being opposed to ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or widely accepted”**) Further, libertarian has more of the word “liberty” in it than does liberal.

Still, it is not as if the word “libertarian” did not have a separate,  non-political meaning. The word labels a position in metaphysics, defending free will††, and was well in use before its appropriation for political use.

But this hardly constitutes an argument against using it. Indeed, the two usages are in parallel in ways that liberal (in the individualist sense), may not be: metaphysical libertarianism limns the liberty of man in the context of the causal forces of nature; political libertarianism limns the liberty of man in the context of human society and, ahem, anti-sociality.

Jeffrey Tucker’s essay, though, is not concerned primarily with the advisability of the political meaning of “libertarian.” Instead, he focuses on when it began being used, consciously, by the folks who now call themselves “libertarians.”

As it turns out, libertarianism is not a strange new ideology with arcane rules and strictures, much less a canon of narrowly prescribed belief. It predates the Libertarian Party’s founding in 1972. The term came into use twenty years earlier to signal a broad embrace of an idea with ancient origins.

To be sure, if we go back a century, you will find a 1913 book Liberty and the Great Libertarians by Charles Sprading (reviewed here). It includes biographies of many classical liberals but also some radicals in general who didn’t seem to have much affection for modern commercial society. It’s a good book but, so far as I can tell, the use of the term in this book is an outlier.

Apart from a few isolated cases — H.L. Mencken had described himself as a libertarian in 1923 —  the term laid dormant on the American scene for the following 50 years.

Tucker then goes on to reveal the real origin of the term, which he discovered in the archives of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE): Dean Russell, in May 1955, suggested that “those of us who love liberty trade-mark and reserve for our own use the good and honorable word ‘libertarian.’” Soon after, Leonard Read began using the term, and an intellectual movement — classical liberalism revived and (perhaps) perfected — had a new name.

I checked Brian Doherty’s history of the modern libertarian movement, discovering only that the index sports no page citation for  the origin of the term “libertarian” itself. I skimmed (again) through the excellent first chapter‡‡, and did not find a discussion of the term’s filiation, even in the sections on the turn-of-the-century Liberty magazine.

Which surprised me a bit. For the adoption of the word can serve as a microcosm of the libertarian movement itself. Perhaps Mr. Doherty will correct me — it has been many years since I have read his book. Today I just skimmed over it. And as for Jeffrey Tucker’s account, does he really get it right? Were there only, as he contends, a few mentions of “libertarian” before Dean Russell grabbed the word from the metaphysics (not metaphysical) ether to shoe-horn it into service for a revived individualist liberalism?

I have qualms.

So let us go to the most likely origin of this terminological revolution, the pages of Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty (1881–1908). Actually, I am going to cheat, and consult the book (titled, oddly, Instead of a Book***) he compiled from its pages. And there he uses the word “libertarian” exactly four times.

In his classic and well-regarded essay “State Socialism and Anarchism: How Far They Agree, and Wherein They Differ,” which serves as the book’s first chapter, Benjamin Ricketson Tucker distinguishes between the tyranny implied by state socialism with his own anti-statist, self-designated “socialism”: “One is communistic, the other soliditarian. One is dictatorial, the other libertarian.” So there you have a characteristic use: as a general term to contrast with tyranny, with dictatorships.

Later on in the book, from Liberty’s January 1, 1887, edition, Ben Tucker laments a comrade in the cause of liberty — a man who had stated that “There is nothing any better than Liberty and nothing any worse than despotism” — who errs, Tucker claims, by defending protectionism and Greenback inflationism. Tucker titles the chapter “A Libertarian’s Pet Despotisms.”

Here the word is a noun, not an adjective. And it is obviously a term for what Tucker claims himself to be. (He usually referred to himself under other synonyms, such as a “philosophical anarchist” or “individualist anarchist,” but perhaps most eloquently as an “unterrified Jeffersonian.”) In the book’s third reference, it is back as an adjective, in a discussion of Henry George and divorce laws. The phrase in question is a contrast: “instead of being libertarian.” The clear implication of the passage is that Tucker, not George, holds to a libertarian doctrine.

The fourth use occurs in a fascinating discussion of the meaning of “anarchy.” To translate the passage into modern terms, it might read something to the effect that anarchy is not Somalia’s lack of State governance, but the institutional arrangement of a people who lack a State government while also desiring liberty, and seek to defend it. Tucker’s phrasing is more provocative:

The present State cannot be an outgrowth of Anarchy, because Anarchy, in the philosophical sense of the word, has never existed. For Anarchy, after all, means something more than the possession of liberty. Just as Ruskin defines wealth as “the possession of the valuable by the valiant,” so Anarchy may be defined as the possession of liberty by libertarians — that is, by those who know what liberty means. The barbaric liberty out of which the present State developed was not Anarchy in this sense at all, for those who possessed it had not the slightest conception of its blessings or of the line that divides it from tyranny.

Here we have definition of a free society that depends on a general settling of opinion on libertarian doctrine. Whole treatises could be written about this passage, but our take-away, here, must be how important it is for Tucker to have his ideological doctrine become culturally dominant, a libertarianism writ across society.

This particular passage, by the way, was written in response to a long letter from someone signing himself (or herself) as “Egoist.” The date was October 27, 1888.

As Jeffrey Tucker has stated, the term was sparsely used during the first half of the 20th century, and was by no means universally latched onto by proponents of the kind of radical liberty that incorporated private property — as Ben Tucker’s did, as Jeff Tucker’s does.

But I think Jeff underestimates its extent. Alas, I cannot, at the moment, do the research to back my contention up in an exhaustive manner. I do not now have access to my files from the anarchist-communist journal The Firebrand, which started publication about the same time as Tucker’s Instead of a Book came out, and in the pages of which appeared plenty of critiques of various Tuckerite positions. If my memory serves correctly, the word “libertarian” was used by the anarcho-communists as well as individualist anarchists at that time. Soon later, I know, Left (that is, anti-property) anarchists used the term to euphemize their anti-statist forms of socialism. And it has been so used until the present day by just those kind of people.

I could uncover many citations of this, but I will make do with one. Yes, just one: Senex, “Whither the Libertarian Movement?” Vanguard I:5 (January 1933), 6–8. This is a typical response to the individualist anarchists from a far-left anarchist. More such references can be found in the pages of the book††† from which I extracted this.

What is worth noting is that “libertarian” evolved to fill a need: as a euphemism for anarchist, anarchistic and anarchism. Anarchists had every reason to desire such a euphemism, considering that, in their midst, there were numerous vandals, murderers and terrorists. Ben Tucker hated violence, the “propaganda by the deed.” And even those anarchists further left than he — that is, those expressing hatred for private property, on the whole, and market coöperation, specifically, who were in fact leaning towards violent revolution — needed a safe space (a safeword?) from the rising anger of American and European populations, people who were understandably vexed by terrorism.

This actually mirrors what was happening in State Socialist circles. There, the terms socialism gave way to communism gave way to collectivism. I covered all this last year — well, rather, economist Yves Guyot discussed all this 108 years ago. “There is some popular confusion about the terms,” I explained†††, relating Guyot’s telling of the tale:

Marx and company chose “communism” in 1848 because, well, “the word ‘socialism’ had been too much discredited at the time.” But, to everyone’s confusion and delight, “they subsequently resumed it, for the logical conclusion of all socialism is ‘communism.’”

And there’s more. “The word ‘collectivism,’” according to one socialist leader, “was only invented in order to spare the susceptibilities of some of the more timorous. It is synonymous with the word ‘communism.’”

Talk about a wealth — indeed, a welter — of terminology!

But it does cast light on the Grand Ideological Theft of the 19th century, the taking of Liberalism from the individualists by the collectivists.

We who carry on the older liberalism still lament the purloined label. Jeff Tucker does, anyway: “left-wing partisans of state planning don’t seem to embrace the word liberalism as they once did. They prefer the term progressive — a misnomer if there ever was one!” And he then asks the obvious question: “Does that leave the word liberal on the table for the taking? Maybe. That would be some beautiful poetry.”

But there already has been some poetry here — some irony, perhaps. Or cosmic justice. Collectivists took away liberalism from the individualists and the individualists took away libertarianism from the collectivists.

Perhaps we should chuck it all and take up Benedetto Croce’s term****: liberism.

It is shorter.

  • * Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, introduction by Albert Jay Nock (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981). 9/17/2016.
  • † Timothy Wirkman Virkkala, foreword to Joseph Hiam Levy, The Outcome of Individualism (Baltimore, Maryland: Laissez Faire Books, 2015), a reprint of 1892’s Third Edition.
  • ‡ “Where Does the Term ‘Libertarian’ Come From Anyway?” FEE: Foundation for Economic Education, Thursday, September 15, 2016.
  • ** Merriam-Webster,
  • †† See Randolph Clarke, Libertarian Accounts of Free Will (Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • ‡ ‡ ‡  “Patriots, Unterrified Jeffersonians, and Superfluous Men,” in Brian Doherty, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern Libertarian Movement (New York: Public Affairs, 2007).
  • *** Benjamin Tucker, Instead of a Book by a Man Too Busy to Write One: A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism (Boston, 1897). This book was reprinted by Laissez Faire Books as an ebook, in 2015, with an introduction by Yours Truly.
  • ††† Leonard I. Krimerman and Lewis Perry, editors, Patterns of Anarchy (New York: Anchor Books, 1066).
  • ††† Timothy Wirkman Virkkala, foreward to Yves Guyot, Socialist Fallacies (Baltimore, Maryland: Laissez Faire Books, 2015), an ebook reprint of the first English edition, 1910. The original French edition was published in 1908.
  • **** See the “Liberism” entry on Wikipedia. Though the term hails from Croce, Giovanni Sartori has given it a trans-Atlantic treatment, and may have given it a more “libertarianish” and free-trade meaning than original in Croce. I have not read the relevant Croce or Sartori writings.